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9 Tactics of a Media Manipulator: How to Control and Influence Blogs
A SUPPLEMENT TO When you
know the patterns of the press, you can exploit them. When you know how bloggers think, you can co-opt their instincts to your advantage. That is what I do for a living. I am a media manipulator. TRUSTMEIMLYING.com
BLOGS MAKE THE NEWS Blogs
drive our media cycle. TV and Radio reporters once ﬁlled their broadcasts with newspaper headlines, today they repeat what they read on blogs—certain blogs more than others. I’m talking about sites like: Gawker, Business Insider, Politico, BuzzFeed, Hufﬁngton Post, Drudge Report. You may not read all these sites, but the media elite does. So their news becomes our news.
A TACTICAL RESPONSE In the
following pages I am going to share my secrets to manipulating and controlling blogs. To say they have worked for me in the past would be an understatement. These tactics are directly responsible for millions of media impressions for my clients, stories everywhere from the New York Times to TMZ, and now a six-ﬁgure book deal. Every one of following nine tactics exploits a critical vulnerability (or opportunity) in our media system. I will show you where they are, what can be done with them, and help you recognize when they’re being used on you. You may not believe it, but I ultimately intend these revelations as criticism. It cannot be said to be a good thing that a marketer can turn nothing into national news with only a few simple tricks. But the fact is: they can. I have. My aim in exposing all this is change. Until then, the system is yours to abuse. Have fun…but beware.
I BLOGGERS ARE POOR; HELP
PAY THEIR BILLS Incentives matter, exploit them. Bloggers don’t make much money, and when they do, they’re paid by the pageview. The tactic is simple: inﬂuence bloggers by dangling pageviews in front of them. Give them a story that will generate pageviews (true, worthwhile or not)—and you’ve handed them money. Actually, you did even better. You bribed without leaving a papertrail. That doesn’t mean that free products, samples, advertising deals and connections aren’t incredibly effective too. The line between editorial and business at a blog is blurred—how could it not be? Sometimes there is only one employee (they’re the writer, ad sales head and owner). Critics call blogging a “digital sweatshop” for a good reason. “Ceaseless ﬁght for table scraps” might be another phrase for it. For my part, I’ve lost track of the bloggers whose names I have helped make by giving them big stories and story beats (favorable and to my liking). They turned this attention from gigs at small blogs to editorships and staff jobs at major newspapers. I invested early and bought my inﬂuence cheap. Do the same.
II TELL THEM WHAT THEY
WANT TO HEAR Blogs have to publish dozens of stories a day. The online-driven news cycle is going a million miles a minute from a million directions. No one has the time—or the motivation —to vet their sources the way that media once did. This weak point is your opportunity: become a source for a story on a blog, which in turn becomes the source for serious news stories. Once during a lawsuit I needed to get some information into the public discussion, so I dashed off a fake internal memo, printed it out, scanned it, and sent the ﬁle to a bunch of blogs as if I were an employee leaking conﬁdential materials. The same bloggers who were uninterested before, now gladly wrote about it because it was “EXCLUSIVE!” and “LEAKED!” Through HelpAReporterOut.com (HARO), I’ve been able to get my name in stories everywhere from ABC News to Reuters to the Today Show. Sometimes I don’t even do it myself. I just have an assistant pretend to be me over e-mail or on the phone. Blogs are desperate for sources and material, so offer to be that source. They’ll take anything from anyone—unsolicited, untraced e-mails or angry comments pulled from comments sections, or even clearly self-interested “tips.” I know, because I have been this kind of source dozens of times. Just Google my name.
III GIVE THEM WHAT SPREADS,
NOT WHAT’S GOOD As MIT media studies professor Henry Jenkins tells publishers: “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” When your job is to advance narratives in the media, the ﬂip side of this is equally straightforward: If it spreads, you’re golden. So give blogs something that spreads—anything else is futile. I design what I sell to bloggers based on what I know (and they think) will spread. I give them what they believe will go viral online—and make them money. Of course that means distorting the news, pandering to extremes, and leaving out pesky “realities. As Jonah Peretti, the virality expert behind the founding of both the Hufﬁngton Post and BuzzFeed believes, “if something is a total bummer, people don’t share it.” A quick hint on what spreads: a Wharton School study on which New York Times articles spread the most concluded—“the most powerful predictor of virality is how much anger an article evokes.” Make people angry. It works. Better, make them angry and turned on. Why else do you think I run ads of naked American Apparel models all over conservative blogs?
IV HELP THEM TRICK THEIR
READERS Brian Moylan, a Gawker writer, once bragged, the key to a successful blog headline is to “get the whole story into the headline but leave out just enough that people will want to click.” Sure, it’s tricking but that’s the whole business model: trick readers to drive clicks. Remember Myspace? There was a reason the login process made you load like 10 pages. A click is a click and a pageview is a pageview. Sites don’t care how they get it. Their bosses don’t care. They just want it. And they’re good at it. Nate Silver once analyzed a slate of articles on the Hufﬁngton Post. Articles by normal contributors did an average of 43 comments a piece. Article by paid Hufﬁngton Post professions did 800 comments per article. Comment baiting = pageviews. When I want Gawker or other blogs to write about my clients I intentionally exploit their ambivalence about deceiving people. When I give them facts, I leave room for them to speculate by not fully explaining everything. If I am creating the story as a fake tipster, I ask a lot of rhetorical questions: Could [some preposterous misreading of the situation] be what’s going on? Do you think that [juicy scandal] is what they’re hiding? And then I watch as the writers pose those very same questions to their readers in a click-friendly headline. The answer to my questions is obviously “No, of course not,” but I play the skeptic about my own clients—even going so far as to say nasty things—so the bloggers will do it on the front page of their site. I trick the bloggers, and they trick their readers.
V SELL THEM SOMETHING THEY
CAN SELL EXPLOIT THE ONE-OFF PROBLEM We think of newspapers as being sold by subscription, but if you remember, they used to be sold on the street corner by newsboys. Those were the days of yellow journalism —newsboys outshouting each other with extreme [made up] headlines to sell a few more copies than the competition. This is exactly the same position blogs are in today. People don’t read one blog. They read a constant assortment of many different blogs, and so there is little incentive to build trust. Publishers are right back to the [digital] street corner, yelling, “War Is Coming!” to sell every article. Even if that war needs to be manufactured to do it. Making up the news is hard, so blogs are ﬁne with manipulators like me easing their burden, just like the yellow papers were. Instead of being a 19th-century press agent manipulating newspapers, I am a 21st-century press agent manipulating blogs. The tactics are the same, but I ply my trade with more inﬂuence, less oversight, and faster results than ever imagined. It’s a different century but reporters want the same thing: scandals, controversy, humor, sex and conﬂict. Give it to them.
VI MAKE IT ALL ABOUT
THE HEADLINE Blogs have to sell every article to a new audience—because really, when was the last time anyone read HufﬁngtonPost.com? No, we click the articles that catch our attention, wherever they are. Increasingly, blogs scramble for attention on places like Twitter and Google News, a crowded environment not all that different from a newsboy’s busy street corner. As Gabriel Snyder, of TheAtlantic.com, put it: headlines are “naked little creatures that have to go out into the world to stand and ﬁght on their own.” They’re so desperate to win this ﬁght, they don’t care if the article is true. The lesson is simple: if they can put a good headline on it, blogs will publish anything. Like the yellow papers a century ago, they love exaggeration and lies and bogus tags like EXCLUSIVE, EXTRA, UNPRECEDENTED* and PHOTOS in the requisite CAPITAL LETTERS. They love silly questions like: “Is Donald Trump a Rapist?” (It’s a question, not an accusation, see?) And celebrity and sex and absurdity. So give it to them and the world is yours for the taking. You make up the news; blogs make up the headline. Everyone but the reader wins!
VII KILL ‘EM WITH PAGEVIEW
KINDNESS The best way for bloggers to get pageviews is to write about things that get pageviews. Trending topics and Most Read/Most Popular lists are like a compass for bloggers, telling them what stories to gravitate towards. Mess with the magnet inside the compass and watch as its owner goes wildly off track (or better, exactly in the direction you want them to go) Connect your story to a celebrity, to a search-engine friendly terms, show that other blogs are covering the topic. Blogs rush to copy each other because they think there is trafﬁc in it. Get a story on a blog that shows how many views its posts do (like Gawker and Forbes)? Spike that number through paid trafﬁc on StumbleUpon or Outbrain. Watch how “interesting” that story suddenly appears to places like the Business Insider. Remember, some bloggers have to churn out as many as a dozen posts a day. Not every story is intended to be a home run—a collection of singles, doubles, and triples adds up too. Give blogs something solid and they’re more than happy to write about it. It makes their day that much easier. Pageview journalism is about scale. Sites have to publish multiple stories every few minutes to make a proﬁt, and why shouldn’t your story be one of them?
VIII USE THE TECHNOLOGY AGAINST
ITSELF Blogs are like every other medium: the way the platform works determines what bloggers can publish and how exactly they must do it. To know what the medium demands of bloggers is to be able to predict, and then co-opt, how they act. Why do blogs constantly chase new stories? Why do they update so much? Why are posts so short? A look at their development makes it clear: Bloggers don’t have a choice. Om Malik of GigaOM published nearly 3 posts a day every day for 10 years. It’s no surprise that his average post was 215 words. It wasn’t humanly possible to write anything longer. When Nick Denton of Gawker says that “any good idea” can be expressed in a 100 word post or less, he presents manipulators with an awesome opportunity. No need to worry about complex concepts, blogs only have time for the simple, sensational and shocking. Blogs can—economically and structurally—only see the world in one way: the way of the 5 minute blog post. Your job is to translate (or distort) your agenda into those terms. Do it well and they’ll eat it up. They certainly don’t have time to fact check, not when they’ve got 10 more posts to write before the end of the day.
IX JUST MAKE STUFF UP
EVERYONE ELSE IS DOING IT Blog posts need an angle. Something that will catch attention and spread. Since bloggers must ﬁnd an angle, they always do. Small news is made to look like big news. Nonexistent news is puffed up and made into news. As veteran bloggers John Biggs and Charlie White put it in their book Bloggers Boot Camp, “no topic is too mundane that you can’t pull a post out of it.” This is their logic. As a marketer, it’s easy to fall in love with it. All you have to do is tell a blog that the story you’ve giving them is an “exclusive” and they’ll fall all over themselves to publish it. Attach a couple photos to your story and they’ll turn it into a slideshow. Turn an everyday occurrence into “breaking news” and they’re happy to go along with the charade. None of it has to be real, fair, or in good taste. Blogs don’t care, why should you? This is a world where the news is deliberately misread by bloggers in order to get a couple extra pageviews. People are needlessly turned against each other to create controversy and conﬂict (and the rabid comments that go along with it). Bloggers publish ﬁrst and fact check second—so they can get two posts out of the story instead of one. That’s the game that’s being played against you and your company right now. Learn to play it back or the joke will solely be on you.
“Most crucially, that machine, whether
it churns through social media or television appearances, doesn’t reward bipartisanship or deal making; it rewards the easily retweetable or sound bite– ready statement, the more outrageous the better.” — IRIN CARMON, JEZEBEL
CONCLUSION You may have trouble
swallowing some of these tactics or shudder at my bluntness about them. That doesn’t mean they aren’t real. They are, and they’re being used to create and inﬂuence the news right now, even as you read this. Some of you will take these tactics and put them to use immediately. So be it. Others, I hope will be repulsed enough to begin to institute change. Hopefully bloggers will read this and come to the realization I have: We’re all media manipulators. Publicists and bloggers and journalists have all been playing the same game: get attention at all costs. It’s a dangerous game. You may think that because you’re the one feeding the monster, you are in control. Well, you’re not. Trust Me, I’m Not Lying.
WHO IS RYAN HOLIDAY? Ryan
Holiday is media strategist for notorious clients like Tucker Max and Dov Charney. After dropping out of college at 19 to apprentice under renowned strategist!Robert Greene, he went on to advise many bestselling authors and multi-platinum musicians. He is the Director of Marketing at American Apparel, where his work in advertising was internationally known. His strategies are used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and have been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company. He currently lives in New Orleans. WWW.RYANHOLIDAY.NET FEATURED IN